First of all, I have to start by asking a little background information. What intrigued me is what credentials you had to write an academic work on the series. Your writing seems to suggest experience in film and media studies - would this be accurate?
I was an English Major in college at the University of Richmond and was fortunate to meet there a student advisor and professor named Bert Cardullo who is the film critic for The Hudson Review and author of many books of film criticism. He studied under the great Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic and is an esteemed - and brilliant, critic himself.
He opened doors for me at the University, formulating independent film studies, and he also created a very worthwhile and advanced individual curriculum that focused on theory and criticism. For his intervention and guidance in my education, I will be eternally grateful. He taught me how to interpret a film, how to understand film grammar, how to look at the text of a film, and how to see a work of art within its context and history. He is not a genre enthusiast himself - we diverged sharply in our interests and preferences, but I consider him one of the most influential persons in my life.
Genuine academic texts on genre television seem to be comparatively rare. There's a sense they may fall outside the scope of the series' fanbase, yet also seem too frivolous for scholastic purposes. Were you aware of the potential problems with the market for such a book, or were you just writing the kind of work you'd personally like to see out there?
In the mid-to-late 1990s, I wrote Exploring Space:1999, An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica, A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television and A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, all from a publisher of scholarly reference books, McFarland.
I viewed the books as being part of one big book series that with a mission: to define these series as works of art, and to apply the tenets of film theory and criticism to prove that notion. This means looking at the choice of camera angles. This means looking at editing. This means looking at how form reflects content. This means analyzing the context and history of the program, since no work of art comes out of a vacuum.
Starting out as an unknown writer, I felt that this approach was a unique and different take, especially because TV shows are often considered the dirty cousins of film, and genre TV series something worse! My goal was to return to these series and study their visuals, their themes, their ideas, and assemble texts that synthesize new theories about them, using my film background as a guide and underlying foundation.
I have learned that this is a tremendously difficult task. Here's why: Just like you say, the academic, scholarly folks think that the subject matter is beneath contempt - so they write off the book.
And fans, though they can be absolutely wonderful and delightful, sometimes do not wish to read an objective analysis of a series that they passionately love. Some might rather see the series championed rather than dissected analytically. Some might rather read interviews about funny things that happened on the set during production, instead of a protracted analysis of a credits sequence, or an essay about camera movement, or historical precedents.
And some fans will always believe that they know the series better, and could write a better book. That's the territory. It's not easy to navigate, and often you end up displeasing a portion of the audience you would like to please.
So, yes, sometimes I do feel that I'm between a rock and a hard place - writing books that are deemed trivial by one camp (academia) and pretentious to the other (the fan base). But what is so wonderful about writing these books is that I've also met so many fans over the years who love what I do - and have told me they've waited for twenty years for books like mine.
Honestly, I never expect everybody to agree with my opinions and/or conclusions about these TV series. My greatest hope is merely to stimulate debate. Because I think that by fostering debate about Blake's 7 or Space:1999 or Doctor Who - the shows live on into the next generation.
I do like to read these kind of books too - I'm a big non-fiction fan. I always have been. David Gerrold's The World of Star Trek, Allan Asherman's The Star Trek Compendium, David Schow's guide to The Outer Limits and Marc Zicree's Twilight Zone book are all great books - and great loves that I have returned to over the years with admiration.
In my work, I wanted to do what those books did for me. I wanted to feel stimulated to look at productions that I like in a new and different way. I want folks to read my books and then go back to the VCR (or DVD) and watch the episode and decide that either: a.) they can watch an episode in a totally new light, or b.) that I'm totally off-the-mark, but at least I gave them something new to think about on the subject of something they've watched a dozen times. They may ultimately reject every point I make, but at least, in that process, they are formulating and developing their own ideas about why they like the program.
Prior to this I'd read and enjoyed both your A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television and John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado's Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. Yet while the undervalued The Unfolding Text introduced me to dozens of new words, your works seem to be written with a more accessible style, often employing contemporary colloquialisms and a more informal tone. Was there a sense of trying to steer media deconstruction towards the masses while retaining the principles?
The simple answer is "yes." I have always tried to write in a literary style that is smart and serious, but also, ultimately, informal and accessible. I want readers to feel like we're all sitting down together over coffee - discussing the artistic side of these TV series. It isn't always necessary to use big words to do that - and in fact, sometimes an overly scholarly approach works against the author. Readers start to think you are talking down to them, and that you think you are "so smart." I wanted to introduce the tenets of film theory to these works of art in a way that was not threatening, pretentious or over-the-top. But it's funny - not everybody agrees that I do that. I remember reading somewhere by some reviewer that my Blake's 7 book was "pretentious" and "swotty." I got a nice good laugh out of that...you just can't please all of the people all the time. Sometime in the future, I will have to work the adjective "swotty" into one of my books...
On a production note, were there copyright restrictions on visual material? While the lack of photographic evidence completes its appearance as an academic work, when they are used the majority of pictures are of cast members in non-Blake films and series.
Yes. Copyright restrictions are a very serious matter. In today's environment, I can no longer write books devoted to a single TV series - because it has become so contentious and litigious a world. That's why my last two TV books, Terror Television and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, are 600 pages long and survey an entire genre, rather than one example. The reason is that the corporate creators of many TV series see these things purely as "business," not art. I think that's a shame, and it is shortsighted. It would be much better for everybody to promote talk and interest in Blake's 7, rather than shutting it down to preserve profits.
Despite coming from the US, there seems to be a consensus running through the book that UK series have more integrity - would you say that this was the case?
I think that it has more to do with context. As you can probably tell, I'm very big on context. Space:1999 for instance, produced 24 episodes before the show ever aired, and there was very little interference. As a result, the first season is a consistent and artistic body of work - it looks and feels all of one piece. I think there is a level of integrity there, until the "suits" stepped in between seasons and started ordering changes.
I will say this, I do have a strong preference for British-made TV series: Space;1999, The Prisoner, UFO, Blake's 7, Dr. Who, not because of integrity, but because I believe that even with sometimes sub-standard production values, they tend to be more artistic, and less commercial. I like the ideas in these shows. I find it endlessly interesting that The Prisoner, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who all concern anti-establishment, non-conformists as lead characters. In America, our genre heroes are usually military folks (Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Sea Quest DSV) who are the arms and legs of bureaucracy and establishment. I guess I just like the streak of individuality I see in the British programming. I admire it.
A childish question, but one I have to ask - how far up the list does Blake's 7 come in terms of your favourite shows? While you seem very enthusiastic about the series, I did detect perhaps a greater bias towards Space: 1999.
This is an interesting question. I do have more nostalgia for Space:1999 simply because it has been in my life longer (1975). I only "discovered" Blake in the mid-to-late 1980s. But I do like both shows very much. For instance, just this last Christmas, my wife Kathryn and I went back and did a Blake's 7 marathon, where in three-to-four week period, we watched all of the Blake's 7 episodes , and it was so much fun. I like both series, but I do have more "time" in, I suppose, with Space:1999, as well as a special affinity for some of its Gothic, horrific, metaphysical aspects. I would say that Blake's 7 is definitely in my top three, and sometimes in my top two, depending on how I feel.
It's interesting though. One streak of criticism that runs through all my books that fans for the most part don't like is that I often compare one show to another. To me, this is an essential thing - it is context. You can't understand a work of art without understanding the context from which it came. When I wrote my Space:1999 book, it was pretty clear that Star Trek was the benchmark by which 1999 was measured, and so it seemed I had to discuss that, use classic Trek as a metric.
As for the Blake's 7 book, Space:1999 was a contemporary. They both came out of the same country at roughly the same time - yet they were so different in terms of themes and production values. When I write about Space:1999 in the Blake's 7 book, it is to establish a context, which I think is valuable, though some people think I'm championing one over the over. I don't feel that way in my heart. They are apples and oranges and I like them both. Did Space:1999 have better effects and a more moody, mysterious nature? Yes. Did Blake's 7 feature more intense story arcs, snappier dialogue, and go deeper into character? Yes. They are each good for their own unique reasons.
My bias about Blake's 7 is actually this: I prefer the first two seasons, and overall I prefer the Liberator years. The first two years are great, because the character of Blake reveals so much about Avon (who is my favorite character, actually). I like what Blake does for Avon as a person, and I missed that element as the show went on and Blake disappeared. Blake was a valid challenge to Avon - intellectually and physically, and brought out so many colors of the character's heart, and I never quite felt the same way about Tarrant or some of the later additions to the cast. That's actually the bias that I think is evident in the book, to some extent.
I noticed that as the book went on, you seemed to become more reliant on the appearance of the female cast in order to gauge your enjoyment of episodes. This is heightened during the fourth season, where we have, amongst others, "Josette Simon's lovely features" and "Glynis Barber is again impressive (and beautiful with her hair down)." Do you think the book is a little guilty of sexing up the series?
Maybe. I didn't mean to. Writing a book is such a timely and deep process that sometimes things slip in that perhaps shouldn't. I would have to go back and look and decide if I think I let my appreciation for the physicality of the female characters influence my writing. Could be, but I didn't do it intentionally or with malice.
Perhaps the most contentious element are the featured Essays at the end of the book. Nearly five years on, would you have drew different conclusions, and would the heightened political situation have informed your work in this regard?
Yes. Firstly, looking back - on every book, there is always something you would change. Always. So there are some things I would want to change, and those alterations would definitely come in the Essay sections, no doubt. I believe everything that I stated is valid and valuable, but I have grown as a writer since I authored the book in 1997-1998, and could have written my comments more convincingly today. I won't go into specifics, I'll leave that to my critics!
I believe I mentioned that my wife and I just watched Blake's 7 over the 2003 holiday season, and boy, was it an eye-opener in today's context.
Today in the U.S., valid dissent is being squelched as unpatriotic, or worse, terrorism! With the privacy lacerating Patriot Act, our computer habits and reading lists are open to the prying eyes of Big Brother. The government is knowingly giving us false figures about the price of entitlement programs to win political points and a re-election campaign.
And to some extent, this is all vetted in the all-important name of "Security." Frankly, I could see Servalan using that excuse too - and probably very effectively. She would probably attack the Federation herself, then turn around and usurp power, claiming the need to defend it!
So yes, Blake's 7 is infinitely more relevant today than it has been in years because of where we find ourselves in this post-911 world Is our government a 'liberator" or a conqueror? I do wish I could re-visit the book today, because there are incredible (and frightening) political parallels to draw out.
I was a little disappointed that the book didn't include your take on the two Barry Letts audio stories, presumably due to time constraints. What were your views on them?
I was disappointed they weren't in the book too. I enjoyed the productions very much and would have liked to comment on them. I thought they were good work, and told in a faithful and respectful manner. As always, however, sometimes it is impossible to "go home again."
Despite the popularity of the series, only a handful of books have still been written on Blake's 7. Did you get to see the recent populist work, Liberation, and if so what were your thoughts on it?
I am aware of the book, and I understand that is quite good, and that the authors did a brilliant job. I have not had the opportunity to read it, simply because I have written three books in the last year and have had comparatively little time for fun reading.
But I plan to read it as soon as I can, and I believe there is always room for more than one book on the subject. The point is to debate the artistry and themes of these programs, and I am delighted that other authors are exploring the series too. That's a good thing. I don't know if we see the show the same way or in totally different terms, but that's not the point. The point is that the more authors who write about these programs, the better. I wish the authors of Liberation all the success in the world because it will bring more interest to Blake's 7.
I see that you've now written a novel based on the series Space: 1999. If ever the chance came up to write a novel on Blake's 7, would you take it? What would your ideas be?
In a heartbeat. Yes. Absolutely. I love the characters, I love the universe. I would love to return to it, this time in the world of fiction.
What would my ideas be? That's a hard thing to determine, because I don't know what the mandate would be from the publisher. On the Space:1999 novel (Forsaken) I learned that because of where my book would be published in the line, it would have to be primarily a planet-set story. Also, that it would be a bridge between the show's two seasons. For a Blake's 7 book, I would need to know - is it set after the series? Between seasons? Prior to the first episode? There are so many stories to tell.
I must admit, there is a part of me that would love to explore the Earth Civilization as seen in the episode "The Way Back," and Blake's first go at being a dissenter. I think that would make a very interesting - and very timely political story. But it would certainly depend a great deal on what the publisher's mandate is.
Finally, what are your thoughts on the prospect of a new revival of the series?
I love sequels. As time goes on, I am becoming less and less a fan of re-imaginings. If Blake's 7 were to return, I would like to see it continue the themes and character arcs already established. I would really enjoy the opportunity to revisit the Blake universe in a meaningful way.
In my book, I remember advocating a big Hollywood movie at one point - and that's because I think that the concept of Blake's 7 is universal and incredibly appealing. A group of heroes fighting City Hall. A band of freedom fighters in space, using alien technology to fight an unwinnable war. That could be a brilliant film and a blockbuster, I believe.
But now, in hindsight, I have seen a new Planet of the Apes, a new Wild Wild West, and a new Battlestar Galactica, and I'm not sure that I would want Blake to go in that direction at all...
But I would like to see the Blake's 7 myth return in some form, preferably with some of the original talent involved both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.
Interview copyright AnorakZone.com/John Kenneth Muir, 2004. Thanks once again to John for his time with this interview - his own website can be found at www.johnkennethmuir.com. You can read the Anorak Zone's review of A History and Critical Analysis HERE.